Lisa Freed manages iRobot’s STEM initiative, focused on engaging students in STEM education across grade levels and demographics. By visiting classrooms, bringing students to iRobot, and providing job shadow experiences, the program inspires students in robotics and STEM fields. iRobot is also the founder and lead organizer for National Robotics Week, which hosts over 350 events in all 50 states annually.
Freed’s tenure in STEM outreach includes ten years as the New England Regional Coordinator for the National Engineers Week Future City Competition. She is a registered Professional Engineer and LEED Accredited Professional.
Freed holds a civil engineering degree from Union College and a master’s in Landscape Architecture from Harvard University. She was a past recipient of the WEPAN Women in Engineering Champion Award recognizing an individual employee in the industry for their volunteer contributions to STEM education. Notably, she was previously named a “Woman Worth Watching in STEM” by the Profiles in Diversity Journal.
Lisa Freed was interviewed in February 2022.
Alex Fielding was the co-founder and CEO of Ripcord, a robotics company on a mission to take the world paperless. In 2021 he went on to become the CEO and Chairman of Privateer Space. He began his career as an engineer for Cisco Systems and Apple, where he worked on multiple generations of macOS and PowerBook.
In 2001, Fielding co-founded Wheels of Zeus with Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak; it was sold to Zontrak in 2006. Today, Fielding sits on the boards of the CodeWarrior Foundation and the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) and is on the advisory board of Astra Space.
Alex Fielding was interviewed in February 2021.
Lisa Freed knows that the primary goal of National Robotics Week is to “show students and others how prevalent robots are. This week is really meant as an outreach, as a way to educate students and everybody about this rising industry.”
National Robotics Week is now in its 12th year. “iRobot founded national robotics week in 2010. We started working on it in 2009 and it was passed by a Congressional resolution. While it is really a robotics week we actually celebrate all of April. It was too hard to fit all the events that were happening into just one week,” shares Freed.
Over the years, they have had up to 350 in-person events spread out over all 50 states. With the Covid-19 pandemic, many events moved online, allowing people to participate across the country without having to leave their homes.
The idea of what a robot is hasn’t shifted much over the years, and Freed hopes visibility events with National Robotics Week can change that: “No matter how hard we try, when we ask little kids to draw a robot, they still draw a box with a head, wires, and funny arms. We're trying to get them to understand that robots come in all shapes and sizes and do all different tasks,” says Freed.
“Last year was really our first year to just let's push social media and we got other tweets posts from Disney Imagineering, General Electric, and the National Science Foundation. As students were looking through Facebook or other social media they would say, ‘Wait, I didn't think that was a robot,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, did you know they built robots that did this?’ That helped to start to broaden the view of robotics.”
Everyone can get involved with National Robotics Week, according to Freed. “The best way is to follow us on social media and then share how you're celebrating. If you're a teacher, use some of the resources we have on a website. Do some coding with your kids with a robot. If you have little kids, draw a picture of a robot and post. If you're a company, show us what you do with robots show us how they're helping in your industry. We just want people thinking and sharing about robots.”
“People expect that robots are going to be walking around with us and that they’re going to be serving us at a moment’s notice,” says Alex Fielding, CEO of Ripcord, a robotics company. “But the robots that I think are the coolest right now are the ones that are doing things quietly, the ones that we all see with our naked eye but we almost have a hard time acknowledging that that is what a robot really is.”
For half a century, robotics has been a major part of the manufacturing world, performing the sort of repetitive tasks which would otherwise place stress on the human body and mind. Today, robotics is also helping humanity solve issues of scale: how can you service a planet with a growing population?
“A lot of the questions around how you feed the population, how you grow the crops, how you make clean water, how you explore a galaxy, they all seem to come back to some form of automation,” Fielding says.
For Ripcord, the question is simple enough in premise, but massive in scale: how do you take an entire society paperless? And the answer, again, is a form of automation: Ripcord is using robotics to digitize humanity’s paper records.
Ripcord’s industrial machines find and remove fasteners from books and documents, and then scan text into the cloud. The scale of the mission is such that Ripcord is digitizing not only business files but also civil disobedience papers, Tibetan archives in Sanskrit, and entire physical libraries.
Ripcord isn’t done innovating, either: their work on non-optical radiation and imaging already allows their robots to read through 20 pages of a closed book without ever opening it; they’re aiming for 2,500 pages with that approach in the next few years.
“There are several robotics companies doing really interesting stuff that’s a huge benefit to society,” Fielding says. “Ten years from now, it’s going to be like the TV remote. You’ll look back and go, how did anyone ever survive without a TV remote? A lot of this technology becomes so ubiquitous that it’s obvious it has to exist.”
Fielding’s journey into robotics started at an early age. First, it was an Erector set. Then it was a soldering iron. Before long, he was in his first computer programming class, and he was hooked. His continued passion for robotics stems from a voracious curiosity and a steadfast belief in the imaginative power of play.
“In my home office, I have a laser cutter, a large format printer cutter, a 3D printer, a metal 3D printer, a vinyl cutter, an industrial embroidery machine, an industrial sewing machine, and a handful of vision sensors I’ve been playing around with that have terahertz emitters on them,” Fielding says, with a laugh. “And my job at Ripcord doesn’t even involve development anymore.”
Fielding knows that he’s unlikely to live long enough to see the completion of Ripcord’s mission to digitize the sum of human society’s paper legacy. But he’s convinced that if such a mission is to ever fully succeed, it will be through robotics, which benefits from its relationship to several exponentially evolving technologies like vision systems, sensors, mechatronics, and biomechatronics. Combined with a mix of passion and curiosity, the potential is seemingly limitless.
“There’s so much we still haven’t solved for,” Fielding says. “Do something that you feel is going to make a lasting impact on the world. Work on stuff that really matters to you. The rest of it is automatic.”
First approved by the FDA in 2000, Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci Surgical System still looks like science fiction. The somewhat frightening-looking fourth-generation da Vinci has modular components and three to four robotic arms that can hold surgical instruments such as scalpels or scissors.
The system is controlled by a surgeon at a console; typically the console is physically close to the surgery system, but in theory, it could actually be quite far away. Twenty years after its approval, the da Vinci system is continuing to advance minimally invasive surgery across a wide spectrum of procedures.
Self-driving taxis might capture a lot of the headlines, but the self-driving construction vehicles at Built Robotics are targeting the $1 trillion earthmoving industry. By upgrading existing heavy equipment with AI guidance systems, Built Robotics builds robots that build.
Automating portions of construction and renovation represents huge cost-savings: robots don’t need to be recharged as often as humans do. It’s also making things safer: despite operating in industries prone to bodily hazard and risk, Built Robotics has had over 10,000 hours of autonomous operations without a safety incident.
Astrobotic is using robotics technology to pioneer affordable planetary access which could help usher in a new era of exploration, science, and tourism. Currently, their lunar landers and rovers are capable of delivering payloads to the Moon for both governments and individuals; in 2021, their Peregrine Lander will be the first American spacecraft to land on the Moon since the Apollo missions.
Astrobotic is also developing more advanced space robotics technology: terrain-relative navigation, mobile robotics for lunar surface operations, and reliable computing systems for mission-critical applications.
The world needs to double its building stock by 2060, but 80 percent of contractors today have trouble finding skilled labor. Canvas, a construction robotics company, helps fill the gap by putting robots in the hands of skilled construction workers. Their novel approach has already reinvented drywall finishing, turning a variable process into an exact science. Canvas has worked on projects like San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 1 and the UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision.
Some jobs you want the robots to take: commercial dishwashers have one of the highest turnover rates, with the average human quitting after just over a month, and 30 percent of dishwashing jobs going unfilled.
Dishcraft’s dish-cleaning robots, on the other hand, are more than happy to keep working. This is the dishwashing machine at scale, powered by AI and reimagined for maximum robotic efficiency. Dishcraft won the Visionary Award from Silicon Valley Robotics in 2020.
Robotics is a collaborative and multidisciplinary field that relies on a community of curious scientific minds. Plug into the robotics conversation by checking out some of the resources below.
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The ability of a computer to learn and problem solve (i.e., machine learning) is what makes AI different from any other major technological advances we’ve seen in the last century. More than simply assisting people with tasks, AI allows the technology to take the reins and improve processes without any help from humans.
A recent report by the International Data Corporation (IDC) projects that global spending on robotics and related services will exceed $135 billion by 2019, and continue to grow at an annual compound rate of about 17 percent.
Engineers might be the only group of people where you can give them a problem—and they can consider it a gift. The engineering mind thrives on hunting for elegant solutions to complex tasks. That doesn’t mean you should give an engineering student a homework assignment for the holidays, but it does mean you can have some fun with the gift you eventually select.